Joe Jencks

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Chop Wood, Carry Water

Chop Wood Carry Water
Chop Wood, Carry Water

Dear Friends…

I hope the autumn air and fall colors have brought goodness into your life. November is an eventful month for many, with the holidays approaching and the transitions, both internal and external into a new season. Somehow, where I live in Chicago, autumn seems very short. We go from summer to late summer, and then blink three times and it's winter. This year has been different however. Autumn has lingered. Colors in the trees, vestiges of a more verdant time, seemingly unwilling to loose their hold. And the skies, such a vivid azure against the gold of the leaves, are reminiscent of some ancient Egyptian work of art.

So to the autumn has brought for me at least, a sense of discernment. A time of considering what I want to bring forward with me into future seasons, and what I want to leave behind. What in my life, possession, and heart will serve a productive and holistic vision of tomorrow? And what of my possessions and habits have outlived their time and purpose?

There is a phrase in Buddhism that says, "Chop wood, carry water." It is an allegorical statement. As I understand it, these four words suggest that is it not in what we do but how we do it that will lead us to contentedness, serenity, and enlightenment. The phrase suggests that the necessary and mundane practice of carrying our water and chopping our wood could in-and-of-itself be a meditation, a mindfulness practice. It implies that if we cannot find the threads of enlightenment and redemption inside the here and now, we will probably miss it everywhere else.  It suggests that in the daily routine, in the simple work that must be done, caring for our children, washing the dishes, cooking the meals, folding the laundry, cleaning our house/office/car, we have the chance to let our every activity become a practice.

"Chop wood, carry water."

What is your version of this? What is it in your life that is a necessary practice that you dread doing, but which must be done? How could you stand inside of that experience and transform it into a practice of mindfulness?

I recently cleaned my office. I finished moving into my place. I actually moved 15 months ago. But I finally finished the job. I am fastidious in the kitchen. I use it a lot and I like it to be neat and tidy. In my office on the other hand, I am nearly pathologically cluttered. It is an aspect of my life I want to change. So after more than a year of chaos in the new space, I hired a friend to help me wield the sword of discernment. We spent three long days in my apt. We threw stuff out. We gave stuff to Salvation Army. We gave stuff to neighbors. We put stuff in recycling. Some got shredded. We took half-a-dozen previous and failed attempts at a filing system and ditched them all. We started over. Now like my kitchen, my office has a place for everything and everything is in its place. This process was my "chop wood, carry water," moment recently. But now that I have order, what do I do with it?  

I have developed a new daily practice of cleaning the desk and living room every night before I go to bed. Now that I have a place for everything, at the end of the day every thing needs to go back to its place. I am only a week or so into this new system, but it's working! I have developed a daily practice of putting things away. It seems such a simple task. But I have never attained this organizational level before in my office. It is exciting and fascinating to see the ripple affect in the rest of my life.

I wrestle with depression in the mornings. Not a morning person. Since I got organized however, it is better. I am still not a morning person. But when I do wake up, I am ready to work. Because I am not in service to yesterday's messes. I get to start each day fresh and in an orderly space. I have better attention for the various tasks and projects on my plate. I have enthusiasm for doing work. I also contain my "biz" work to the office. SO that my living room is just about music, R & R, reading, relaxing. Previously, the "Biz" took over any clear space. Piles abounded. And no place was safe or free of work worries. Which meant no place was a place I could just relax and let go of the busy mind. Now with more order, I am actually getting more work accomplished, and I am happier to begin my days. And I am less anxious about going to bed, because I am looking forward to tomorrow, rather than dreading it.

I don't need to literally chop wood or carry water every day. I turn the tap and water pours forth and my cup runneth over. Occasionally the sink runneth over too. But that's another story. I do not need wood for heat. Our landlord is very conscientious, and the apartment is plenty warm all year round. With no related effort on my part, these basic and necessary elements of life are provided. Sure I pay rent, but doing my work seems to have so little to do with wood and water. I don't go for a nice walk in the autumn air and gather wood for the fire. I don't hear the birds call on the way, see a spider build its web, or hear the rustle of leaves.

I drive, I make calls, I do e-mail, I play music, I cook, go to the store, etc. But I now add to those routines, tidying up my spaces. So far it is making a huge difference in my spiritual, emotional, and mental wellbeing. I have never been very good at any daily discipline. I am good at eating a little too much and sleeping not quite enough. I am good at avoiding things I don't want to do, and I am super good at ignoring messes in my own space. But I am determined to make a change in this one regard. I will clean the office and living room every night sometime before I go to bed. I worked too hard for too long, to create this new serene space. And now, I will defend that space.

For me, the idea of "chop wood, carry water" is no longer a dusty esoteric Buddhist platitude.  It is now a centerpiece in a budding daily practice. This practice is perhaps already a routine for some of you, unfathomable to others. The difference for me has come in the fact that I paid for it. I paid someone to help me make sense of the chaos. It was a financial sacrifice. It was a hardship to be embraced. But now that I have that order, part of me thinks, "Hey! I paid good money for that! Be careful with it." Be care-full, full of care.  Mindful. Thoughtful. Think about how I can set things up today so that tomorrow goes a little smoother? And when I do miraculously, tomorrow does go a little smoother. There is already wood by the fire, and water in the basin.

What I know is this: most people have a basement, closet, drawer, cupboard, trunk, box(s) full of stuff they have been avoiding. Americans in particular, have too much stuff.  Getting rid of some of that stuff will make us feel better. It will improve our life in unexpected ways. So strip it down. Figure out what we really need, what we really use. And of course save some of those things we have just because of the emotional attachment. But do let some of them go as well. It is amazing how much better we can feel in an ordered and functional space. And it ripples outward.  

Chop wood. Carry water. Four simple words. Words with a great deal of power. These words are now a daily mantra for me as I endeavor to maintain the order I worked so hard to create. When I see something out of place I say, "Chop wood, carry water" and I carry it back to where it belongs. When there are dishes to be done and I want to go put my feet up and relax I say, "Chop wood, carry water." Bills to pay, packages to mail, etc., etc., etc. "Chop wood, carry water." I have a long way to go in my quest for beauty and order, but these four words are helping me stay focused. Maybe they will help you too.

"Chop wood, carry water."

In Peace, Gratitude, and Song…

•Joe Jencks

2009 Joe Jencks, Turtle Bear Music

updated: 7 years ago